The Washington Post transforms editing (in theory)

Does Leonard Downie Jr. read my blog? (I’ll field this one: no.)

Via Jack Shafer, I see the Washington Post has accepted that the current editing system is outdated, inefficient, and unaffordable. From a memo to Post staff by executive editor Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett:

We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line — moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online.

My main recommendation for keeping copy editors was to give them more responsibility as editors. This is the first element of the Post’s plan:

Several editors will move from the National and Foreign copy desks to take on new roles that begin earlier in the day. These assistant editors will have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper. They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others. They will compose working headlines. They will collaborate with the News Desk to assign stories to pages earlier than our current practices allow.

I argued that giving copy editors more responsibility would potentially allow for fewer eyes on a story because a handful of thorough edits can be better than a half-dozen cursory edits. This is the Post’s logic as well:

With the involvement of assistant editors, we’ll reduce layers of editing. Currently, stories in the A section are routinely changed by a half-dozen different editors (an audit by Don Podesta for this project found fingerprints of 12 different editors on one single inside piece). Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a “two touch” rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.

My next recommendation was to free up copy editors for new roles by giving reporters and line editors responsibility for basic tasks traditionally left to copy editors. The Post calls for this as well:

In addition to supervising their reporters, assignment editors will advance the editing process by doing more fact-checking, and (along with assistant editors) composing working headlines for pieces. Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.

Finally, I disagreed with copy editor curmudgeons who doubt change is possible because “this is the way it’s always been” or because they think reporters will never learn to write or worry about the little things that copy editors have always had to check. My answer to that argument: make reporters change. So it was especially nice to see this in Shafer’s piece:

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can’t write. Their copy isn’t edited as much as it’s rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: “Reporters who can’t write are a dying breed.”

If the Post truly follows through, this will amount to a revolution. Every newspaper editor should read Shafer’s story and the Post memo — and consider making the same kinds of changes.

UPDATE: David Sullivan has a much more skeptical take on the Post memo. He argues that this has been tried in the past, and all that happened is dayside people spent their time working on pretty centerpieces and still left all the real editing and too many stories for the night desk. I think he’s right to be wary, but the Post’s plan seems to be different in several ways from similar attempts in the late 80s/early 90s.

According to Sullivan, those attempts came in response to investors getting crabby about poor (or no) earnings growth during a general economic downturn. But the business was still sound; the industry was doing fine; that’s just shareholders doing what they do. The Post’s attempt to transform editing is a response to a crumbling industry whose business model is in peril. It’s less a “hey, where can we shave costs regardless of if it makes sense for day-to-day operations” plan than the start of a holistic attempt to reconfigure newsroom roles in the face of the new reality.

The plan will only work if the Post is serious about rethinking newsroom roles; as I said in my original post, changing copy editors’ roles without giving more responsibility to reporters and line editors for basic stuff won’t solve anything. But the Post’s memo and Phil Bennett’s comment to Shafer about reporters who can’t write indicates to me that they understand that. At least I hope they do.

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